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Where nature still reigns

By THERESA BLACKWELL
Published May 2, 2007


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PALM HARBOR

The mid April showers were steady and drenching. But even after learning about living with coyotes, a group of visitors braved the rain to hike where Canis latrans roams - a part of Wall Springs Park not yet open to the public. Park staffer Doug Hatten led them past nesting great horned owls and ospreys and through slash and longleaf pines to a mangrove shoreline. "This is a rare view in Pinellas County, " he said, looking out toward the gulf. "No condos."

Eventually, everyone will have a chance to hike those 175 unspoiled acres and watch sunsets from the northern shore.

Currently, the part of Wall Springs Park that is open to the public includes 30 acres immediately to the south. There, visitors ride their bikes, visit the historic spring, play in the playground, fish from piers and climb the observation tower.

In the next month or so, Pinellas County commissioners will consider a contract for designing the rest of the park and preparing construction documents.

The budget for designing and building the northern piece of the park is $7-million. County officials predict it will open in summer 2010.

Many residents have said they want to keep the northern piece of the park as it is as much as possible. One proposal early on to put boat ramps there died in a crescendo of public opposition.

Pinellas officials say they got the message.

"We want to keep it as much as we can like it is, " said Paul Cozzie, the county's bureau director of culture, education and leisure.

So the current plans for the northern piece include:

- A pavilion for watching the sun set.

- More than 4 miles of paved hiking trails.

- A launch site for kayaks and canoes near the middle of the park, just outside the southeast corner of the Girl Scouts' Camp Wai Lani.

- Parking, restrooms, a maintenance building with office space for park staffers and about 2 miles of roads.

Cozzie said the county likely will keep some roads sandy for staff vehicles. And the McMullen house - an old homestead of the pioneer family who once owned the land - will be used for programs.

Still, officials say they could change the locations of facilities, trails and roads out of sensitivity to the environment.

"One of the things we do want to do is minimize the roadways, " Cozzie said, "and to highlight and protect the various ecosystems."

Barbara Hoffman, a past president of the Pinellas chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, has hiked the northern acres herself. The sandhill terrain and big trees especially left an impression.

"It's beautiful, " said Hoffman, who has a master's degree in botany. "The diversity of habitats was very apparent, and it was just another piece of unspoiled land that Pinellas County should set aside for future generations."

* * *

The county spent roughly $35-million to assemble the 205 acres of Wall Springs Park. Of that, about $10.5-million was reimbursed by grants from the Florida Communities Trust.

At a second April hike, about a week after the first trek in the rain, the weather was perfect, sunny and about 70 degrees, and Hatten led the way again.

An osprey, an ibis and a flock of bluebirds flew through the pines. At one point, a jumbo Sherman's fox squirrel scampered up a tree and watched the hikers make their way back into the woods.

Hatten has counted 14 different natural communities in the park.

They provide habitat for a wide array of plants and animals, some threatened or endangered, including the wood stork, the least tern, the shell mound prickly pear cactus and the giant orchid.

Along the way, Hatten pointed out trees and stooped to name flowers and plants.

"We're going through an ecotone now, " he said. That's the transition zone between different plant communities that share some of the same plants. On the left was Mesic Flatwoods, on the right, Sandhill.

"Sandhills are important, " he said, "because there's very little of it left and a lot of endangered species live there."

In the flatwoods, you could hear the Meowww! of the catbird. Soon there were oaks with twisting branches, then a tidal marsh rimmed by ferns and black needle rush.

"Tap on the top of it and you'll see why they call it needle rush, " Hatten said.

Then he paused and looked at how the marsh took on the color of that moment's light. It had taken more than an hour to get to this spot and it was worth every step.

"This, " he said, "is what people want to see."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

[Last modified May 1, 2007, 20:38:31]


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